Thursday, June 16, 2011

I'd Love to Turn You On #34 - Herbie Hancock – Head Hunters (1973, Columbia)

Artists usually aren't able to blow your mind twice.  After they've blown it the first time, your brain forms the association: "Warning - this artist blew your mind that one time, so be prepared for it possibly happening again."  I hold fast to that theory to explain why Head Hunters didn't blow my mind.  Not on first, or second, or even tenth listen.  Because Herbie Hancock had already blown my mind once.
As a newbie teenager in 1983, my musical tastes hadn't progressed very far.  "Out there" probably meant listening to the B-sides of my Duran Duran singles.  But then I saw the video for Herbie Hancock's "Rockit" on MTV (a lot).  Cheaply-made, malfunctioning robots cast hostile glances, set to a pounding beat, funky backing track, and heavy turntable work.  Seeing how this video was sandwiched in between videos by Culture Club and a Flock of Seagulls, I guess it's no wonder that it stuck out enough that I ended up getting the full-length album.  I'm not sure why I brought the album to play for my piano teacher - maybe I wanted to learn the piano breakdown in "Autodrive."  But it ends up she not only knew of Herbie Hancock, she had several albums of his, and was nice enough to let me borrow a few of them.  I took them home, listened to them, taped them, brought them back.  And all through my adolescence, up through my college years, I kept coming back to them.  And as time went on, I focused more and more on Head Hunters.
As I said, it didn't blow my mind.  It wasn't the poppiest thing I had borrowed from my piano teacher (I think Sunlight was in the stack of LPs I borrowed), nor was it the most "out there" (Crossings was in there, too).  As such, it fit somewhere in between, and so it was just "one of the stack."  Which allowed Head Hunters to grow on me, on repeated plays, until it was something I knew as well, or better, than any pop in my collection.
My pet theory is that you can tell a lot by how great an album is by focusing on your least favorite track.  On Head Hunters, for me, that track is "Sly."  It's ten minutes of well-executed funk with some great keyboard soloing on top, which is pretty impressive for a "least favorite track."  "Vein Melter" is a well-named mood piece, with layers of keyboards and sax nudging the song higher and lower.  The keyboard solo about six minutes into the track used to invariably make me go cold all over (or, if you will, "melt my veins") - an involuntary reaction that was only defeated by deliberate over-familiarization.  I had no idea that "Watermelon Man" was a cover of his own jazz track (no surprise there), but it was such a massive overhaul that when I finally heard the original, I didn't make the connection at all.  Opening and closing with a somewhat creepy beer-bottle-turned-wind-instrument, the bulk of the song is a just-shy-of-sluggish slab of funk that I would have considered "druggy" had I been less innocent back then.  Since I wasn't, it instead reminded me (as it still does) of seeing a smiling neighbor fanning himself on his porch on the hottest day of the year.
Then there's "Chameleon."  One of those exceptionally rare fifteen-minute songs that fades out before I'm ready for it to be over.  The song may be funky, but it's a relaxed sort.  It boasts a friendly sort of bassline and shuffling beat that's a bit odd, but still manages to not wear out its welcome as the keyboard and sax take turns soloing on top.  Plenty of funk, jazz and soul bands have taken a stab at "Chameleon" - some quite well - but none seem to really recapture the lightning that Herbie and the band managed to bottle.  And there may be the crux of Head Hunters.  It may be funky, loose, and have a very casual vibe, but apparently it isn't as simple as all that.  The cool vibes and funk may have drawn me in, but the fact that I'm still noticing and appreciating stuff after hundreds of plays suggests there's a lot more going on here.  Maybe after another couple hundred plays, I'll have it all sussed out.
- Alf

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